Obama’s first 10 days

By January 28, 2009Article, Atlantic Eye

BERLIN, Jan. 29 (UPI) — Barack Obama’s inauguration was greeted with elation in Europe. His first 10 days as U.S. president have been met with similar applause. Across the political divide, and almost universally in the media, Obama’s initial decisions have received overwhelming approval. But governments and people are fickle, and the applause might turn to critique sooner than later.

In a meeting with a former head of Germany’s vaunted Bundesnachrichtendienst (Federal Secret Service), I was politely advised that the United States should use its goodwill quickly and thoroughly “and not go at it alone.” Another ranking official told me, “The new U.S. government is making the right noises, but it should not underestimate how quickly the rats will come out of their holes.”

Even so, most are upbeat and full of expectation.

Obama’s first comments about the future of the missile-defense shield have elated the Russians, while seriously disturbing the Czech government and plenty of folks in Poland. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev went so far as to announce that the planned stationing of missiles in Kaliningrad could “now be considered off the table.” Even Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has seriously reduced his venom toward the U.S. government in his newest statements. A second look should be given to Putin’s previous proposal for a joint missile station in Azerbaijan.

European governments are mostly distrustful of Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili. There is not much love lost for Ukraine’s Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko either. Saakashvili is increasingly considered a block to Georgian democracy and anti-corruption. He is also prone to bouts of hubris, which prompts him to make utterly stupid decisions. The darling of the Bush administration should be brought back down a few notches before he is consumed by self-immolation. If he doesn’t change, then the Georgian people should consider changing their government and president. The best hope for Georgia is the former speaker and interim president, Nino Burjanadze.

The announcement of the closing of Guantanamo has been met with complete and universal approval. No issue has divided the United States and Europe more. A U.S. military prison on Cuban soil that in its heyday was used to fight corrupt governments, terrorism and communism out of public view — and was often very effective — had become the public image for everything that went wrong with the Bush administration. Nothing in recent memory has damaged the U.S. reputation as a bastion of democracy more than the images of tortured prisoners repeatedly played out in the world media.

When I last met with the Israeli government, there was a fair amount of hesitation toward Sen. Barack Obama. This has changed somewhat since his ascendance as the Democratic nominee and current president. Still, hawks both in the United States and Israel — and some pragmatists too — are not sure what to expect of him. Europeans are also waiting for Obama’s precise plans in the Middle East, Gaza and dealing with Iran.

Hamas should be held accountable for its extremism, but they are not behaving any differently than Fatah did 20 years ago — and they are certainly less corrupt. I also know some very fine people in the Palestinian Authority — they should be supported. Syria also should be brought into the fold. Engagement — “walking softly while carrying a big stick” and “trusting while verifying” — is still likely to engender the best result and the most progress. There should be increased attention paid to communal leaders in all parts of the Middle East and in the Muslim world in general.

The president’s announcement that he would completely overhaul the Bush administration’s widely criticized approach to the environment was headlined in one of Scandinavia’s leading papers with one word: “FINALLY!” There is a high expectation among European environmental parties and environmentalists about Obama’s approach to carbon dioxide emissions. A well-placed manager in the European automobile industry told me, “Honestly, Marc, it really is time. The U.S. approach to pollution is a disaster — something out of the 17th century.”

“The bailout is for the birds,” a British manager of a small company told me. Many of my friends and managers in small and medium enterprises in Europe agree. They say the bailout targets the wrong people. They are convinced it will not trickle down. While generally opposing regulation, they feel government funding should be targeting the suppliers, SMEs and those at the middle to bottom of the food chain who will be disproportionately affected.

“All the bailout is going to do — and it should rightly be called a restructuring — is rescue incompetent managers by giving them a golden handshake while protecting their golden parachutes,” a German industrialist said to me.

A key ingredient of the next four years must be serious global cooperation. Its failure will mean time is running out for all of us.

Some believe it is already too late.

(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society for International Cooperation. A founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council, he is a senior associate at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in upstate New York.)